A CITY UNITED IN GRIEF
Victims were ‘predominately’ women
TORONTO • As the head of Toronto’s police union stood at the scene of Monday’s deadly van attack, a woman’s dead body lying nearby, he kept hearing a cellphone ring.
Mike McCormack thought it was an officer’s phone, and wondered why his colleague didn’t answer. McCormack was soon set straight.
“He said ‘Mike, it’s not mine,’” the Toronto Police Association president recalled in an interview Tuesday. “It was the victim’s phone, and obviously it was their family or their loved ones calling to check on them, and they weren’t answering ... It was very surreal.”
On the dead pedestrian’s mobile, he said, the caller’s identity read simply “Mom.”
Such were the stories Toronto grappled with Tuesday, the day after a bizarre and gruesome mass homicide on a sunny spring afternoon. In a matter of minutes, a rental van slalomed down a busy stretch of the city’s most famous street, deliberately mowing down two dozen pedestrians.
Alek Minassian, the van’s alleged driver, appeared in court briefly Tuesday, charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder. Moments before the attack, police allege, he had posted a message on Facebook that seemed to voice support for a strange movement of men who feel rejected by the opposite sex.
The victims of the rampage along Yonge Street — 10 dead and 14 hurt — were “predominately” women, aged from their mid-20s to their 80s, police said.
The mayhem unfolded in a relative flash — seven minutes from the first emergency call to the driver’s arrest, said Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders Tuesday.
Minassian appeared in court wearing a white prison jumpsuit, as the city tried to come to grips with a mass homicide that seemed particularly senseless.
The method mimicked a string of vehicle-pedestrian attacks in Europe and North America by lone-wolf terrorists, yet the motive remained murky. Personal demons or psychological disturbance seemed a more likely explanation than any radical ideology.
On Parliament Hill Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed statements by other politicians that there did not appear to be a “national security” element to the attack.
Police say they have not ruled out any motive, but Det.-Sgt. Graham Gibson, leading the investigation, said officers were looking into a “cryptic” Facebook message, posted “minutes” before the rampage began.
It indicated sympathy for the “incel” – or involuntary celibacy — movement of men upset at their lack of sexual activity. It also alluded to a California man who shot and killed six women and injured 14 in 2014, leaving behind a manifesto that complained about his lack of sexual success.
Minassian also spent two months in the Canadian Forces last year, before dropping out of recruit training, a military spokeswoman said.
As the mystery of what triggered the attack continued, the city embraced the modern trend of population-level grief. Hundreds of people made emotional pilgrimages to a makeshift memorial near the crime scene, and various fundraising campaigns were launched for victims and their families.
“We’re dealing here with a city that is in mourning,” said Mayor John Tory Tuesday. “But we’re strong and we’re resilient and we’re, I think, showing the world how Toronto responds in times like these.”
At the same moment, though, closure was still not possible for many of those hardest hit by the tragic assault. Because of the large number of simultaneous deaths and the severe injuries, the coroner’s office is requiring more than just visual identification of the dead — and has not officially confirmed any names, said Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer Tuesday.
They are instead using “scientific” methods such as dental records to be absolutely sure, and that could take days, he said.
“It’s very challenging, I will say,” Huyer told a news conference. “Because there are many in the public, many in the community, many families who will want us to confirm. (But) we’re very careful about that.”
With duty counsel Georgia Koulis at his side, Minassian made a brief appearance before Justice of the Peace Stephen Waisberg on the murder charges, and will return to court next month to face 13 counts of attempted murder.
The accused, head shaved and with a day or two of stubble, spoke his name and said ‘Yes,’ when asked if he understood the proceedings, speaking in a clipped, almost military tone.
Waisberg also ordered Minassian, who lives in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, specifically to avoid contact with the attempted-murder victims.
An older man believed to be the alleged killer’s father was in court and on the verge of tears, helped by an official and talked to by the defence lawyer.
A throng of media surrounded the man as police escorted him to this car, but he said nothing as questions were flung his way.
Police allege Minassian rented a panel van Monday morning and just after 1 p.m. began a lethal spree down Yonge Street, through the downtown heart of suburban North York.
The mass assault down a street crowded with pedestrians left many types of victims.
Saunders said police have opened a hotline for people who witnessed the rampage or its bloody aftermath and need counselling.
“It is a service that will be provided for free,” said the police chief. “I don’t want people walking away thinking, ‘I need help, but I can’t afford it.’ Or ‘I need help but I wasn’t part of this investigation.’ ”
Amir Farokhpour, 28, who witnessed a middle-aged man being hit by the van and flung through the air — then tried in vain to help the pedestrian as he died — interrupted an interview with the National Post Monday, saying he felt sick to his stomach.
When the conversation resumed later, Farokhpour said the shock of the scene had left him temporarily unable to feel his legs.
Henry Yang told the Post he saw people whose lower bodies were mangled, bloody messes, and a man with his brain “opened up.”
Faraz, a real-estate office worker who asked that his last name not be published, said he cancelled all his appointments and even a visit with his father Monday, he was so distressed by what he saw. He came upon the scene just after it happened, witnessing a string of bodies as he walked, then drove up Yonge Street.
“When I was looking at them, I thought they had been shot,” Faraz said in an interview. “All of them had head injuries and they weren’t moving at all.”
Many of the police officers who attended the scene — and even 911 operators who took calls about it — were also traumatized, said McCormack, the police union president.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau gave condolences to the victim’s families, thanked the first responders, and called it “a senseless attack and a horrific tragedy.”
“All Canadians are with Toronto today,” he said. “We cannot as Canadians choose to live in fear every single day as we go about our daily business. We need to focus on doing what we can and we must to keep Canadians safe, while we stay true to the freedoms and values that we all as Canadians hold dear.”
At the Ontario legislature, members of all three provincial parties held a moment of silence.
“We have to ensure that this kind of senseless act doesn’t define us,” said Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Doug Ford, the opposition Progressive Conservative leader, said “our hearts break for the victims, their families.”
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip released a statement through the governor general’s office, voicing their sadness at the “terrible” events.